Best case scenarios for Western Conference teams
Each new NHL season brings hope to fans, no matter how modest their team's talent and goals may be. Here's a look at the Western Conference and what each club needs to have go right in order to make 2014-15 a success:
ANAHEIM DUCKS: For the Ducks to assert themselves as legitimate Cup contenders, rookie keeper John Gibson must prove that his sensational late-season debut was no fluke. That means taking the pipes for 50 games and delivering numbers that make everyone forget Jonas Hiller. Let's say that 30 wins, a 2.25 GAA and .925 save percentage will be sufficient.
ARIZONA COYOTES: Goalie Mike Smith needs to rebound from a thoroughly nondescript season and live up to his highest-paid-player-on-the-team contract. He's set to return fully healed from the knee injury that curtailed his season last March, just as he was playing his best hockey of the year. Even that may not be enough to earn the Coyotes a playoff berth, but anything less and they won't get a sniff of the postseason.
CALGARY FLAMES: With the playoffs out of the question, it's clear what the Flames need: Winger Johnny Gaudreau to prove he's not just a talented kid who feasted on college competition but someone with a chance to overcome his lack of size (he's 5'-9", 150 pounds) and become an impact player in this league. He doesn't need to run away with the Calder—just demonstrate that he can still work his magic against bigger, stronger, faster defenders. If he does that, and the Flames snag a top-three pick in next spring's loaded draft, this season will have been golden.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Brad Richards proves to be the second line center they've been missing for years, a playmaking presence who can extract an MVP-caliber effort from Patrick Kane and help Brandon Saad mature into the dominant offensive force he's destined to become. If Richards clicks, the Hawks can ice a top-six as good as any in the league, setting them up as favorites to capture the Western Conference.
COLORADO AVALANCHE: For all the questions about how they rework their forwards corps, the best-case for this team revolves around a defense that was far too generous last season, allowing at least 40 shots in 10 games and 35-plus in 18 others. Limiting that assault and improving on their blueline corps' 25th ranking will be the key to avoiding the regression that the #fancystats pundits are predicting for this club. The Avs have high hopes for blueline bruiser Brad Stuart, who was recently signed to a two-year extension and penciled into the top pair alongside Erik Johnson.
DALLAS STARS: As frightening as the Stars are up front, the efficiency of their defense will determine their fate. Right now, it's just not good enough. Ideally, free agent Brenden Dillon is signed quickly, Patrik Nemeth matures faster than a hothouse tomato, and Jim Nill acquires a top-four defender who can bring the pain along the boards and add some pop to the second power play unit. Anything less and they're headed for a lot of 5-4 games that could go either way.
EDMONTON OILERS: They discover, to their surprise, that they have four capable NHL centers after all. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is due for a big season on the first line and Boyd Gordon should provide reliable minutes on the fourth. The second and third lines? They're hoping and praying that 2014 first rounder Leon Draisaitl is ready to assume one of those roles and that Anton Lander, Mark Arcobello or even Bogdan Yakimov can handle the other. If it doesn't work out, at least next spring's draft is loaded with centers.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: Best case? The Kings finish Game 82 with no significant injuries and prepared to embark on their title defense. Maybe they get a little more from Dustin Brown and Mike Richards, a pair of veterans whose contributions declined last season. Other than that, L.A. is golden until the games really start to count.
MINNESOTA WILD: With every contending team in the West loading up on offense over the summer, goaltending has never been more important. The committee system served the Wild well last season, but our best case sees one player assert himself as the No.1. Maybe it's Darcy Kuemper, maybe it's Niklas Backstrom. Maybe it ends up being Ilya Bryzgalov. Whoever answers the call, he'll need to rank among the league's top-five statistically for the Wild to take the next step towards respectability.
NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The grim reality is that there's almost no scenario that could end with the Preds in the playoffs. They could, however, become a whole lot more entertaining if new coach Peter Laviolette and his offensive-minded system transforms this club from one of the safest to one of the more adventurous. With newcomers James Neal and Mike Ribeiro added to a group of young talent that includes Calle Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg, this team could be a revelation ... even if it doesn't win a ton of games.
SAN JOSE SHARKS: It's worth remembering that Joe Thornton finished second in the league in assists (65) last season while Patrick Marleau compiled his seventh 30-goal campaign in the past eight seasons. So after a summer spent humiliating the pair after their epic playoff meltdown, our best case scenario sees San Jose management kissing up to the pair in an effort to put that degradation behind them. It might not make a difference, but these two deserve to be reminded of how important they are to this franchise. With them, the Sharks are viable contenders for the Cup over the short term. Without 'em ... nope.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: Ken Hitchcock finds the right line combos and D pairs, maximizing his options with the deepest team in the league and setting it up to challenge the Hawks for the Central crown. But even with that, he'll need something special between the pipes. Brian Elliot has shown flashes of brilliance but has never held down a No. 1 job on a full-time basis. If he's not up to the task, minor-league sensation Jake Allen has to be more effective than he showed with his .905 save percentage last season.
VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Since they've committed long-term to the 34-year-old Sedin Twins, the Canucks are looking at this season as a retooling rather than a rebuild. Best case sees the twins return to top form juicing an offense that ranked a miserable 28th last year (2.33 goals/game). Getting more offensive zone starts, and spending less time blocking shots, should help. So should free agent acquisition Radim Vrbata, but first he has to prove that he can succeed somewhere other than Phoenix. They'll also need a career re-set from goalie Ryan Miller, who lost his way during his pit stop in St. Louis last season. His pre-Olympic form would keep the Canucks in contention for the final spot in the West.
WINNIPEG JETS: This team seems destined for another year of bland, mushy mediocrity and a fourth straight playoff DNQ after a frustratingly quiet offseason that saw them add not a single impact player. Still, there's some reason for hope ... at least, if you believe that much-maligned goaltender Ondrej Pavelec can repay the organization for its undying faith with career bests in wins (30) and goals-against (2.50) and by eliminating those soul-crushing softies that have become the hallmark of his game.